How to Manage Your Time More Effectively: The Science of Applying Computer Algorithms to Our Everyday Lives

Who among us has­n’t wished to be as effi­cient as a com­put­er? While com­put­ers seem to do every­thing at once, we either flit or plod from task to task, often get­ting side­tracked or even lost. At this point most have relin­quished the dream of true “mul­ti­task­ing,” which turns out to lie not only beyond the reach of humans but, tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, beyond the reach of com­put­ers as well. “Done right, com­put­ers move so flu­id­ly between their var­i­ous respon­si­bil­i­ties, they give the illu­sion of doing every­thing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. But in real­i­ty, even they do one thing at a time; what, then, can we humans learn from how they’re pro­grammed to pri­or­i­tize and switch between their many tasks?

A com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem has an ele­ment called a “sched­uler,” which “tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switch­ing.” Sched­ulers work quite well these days, but “even com­put­ers get over­whelmed some­times.” This used to hap­pen to the open-source oper­at­ing sys­tem Lin­ux, which “would rank every sin­gle one of its tasks in order of impor­tance, and some­times spent more time rank­ing tasks than doing them. The pro­gram­mers’ coun­ter­in­tu­itive solu­tion was to replace this full rank­ing with a lim­it­ed num­ber of pri­or­i­ty ‘buck­ets,’ ” replac­ing a pre­cise pri­or­i­ty order­ing with a broad­er low-medi­um-high kind of group­ing. This turned out to be a great improve­ment: “The sys­tem was less pre­cise about what to do next, but more than made up for it by spend­ing more time mak­ing progress.”

The les­son for those of us who habit­u­al­ly list and pri­or­i­tize our tasks is obvi­ous: “All the time you spend pri­or­i­tiz­ing your work is time you aren’t spend­ing doing it,” and “giv­ing up on doing things in the per­fect order may be the key to get­ting them done.” In the case of e‑mail, bane of many a 21st-cen­tu­ry exis­tence, “Insist­ing on always doing the very most impor­tant thing first could lead to a melt­down. Wak­ing up to an inbox three times fuller than nor­mal could take nine times longer to clear.

You’d be bet­ter off reply­ing in chrono­log­i­cal order, or even at ran­dom.” Robert Pir­sig mem­o­rably artic­u­lat­ed this in Zen and the Art of Motor­cy­cle Main­te­nance, whose main char­ac­ter offers advice to his son frus­trat­ed by the task of writ­ing a let­ter home from their road trip:

I tell him get­ting stuck is the com­mon­est trou­ble of all. Usu­al­ly, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re try­ing to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is sep­a­rate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re try­ing to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So sep­a­rate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then lat­er we’ll fig­ure out the right order.

We don’t write many let­ters home these days, of course, and even e‑mail may no longer pose the direst threat to our time man­age­ment. More of us blame our lack of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty on the inter­rup­tions of instant mes­sag­ing in all its forms, from tex­ting to social media, anoth­er prob­lem with an equiv­a­lent in com­put­ing. That a com­put­er can be inter­rupt­ed by any num­ber of the process­es it runs neces­si­tat­ed the devel­op­ment of a pro­ce­dure called “inter­rupt coa­lesc­ing,” accord­ing to which, “rather than deal­ing with things as they come up,” the sys­tem “groups these inter­rup­tions togeth­er based on how long they can afford to wait.” Even if we can’t elim­i­nate inter­rup­tions in our lives, we can group them: “If no noti­fi­ca­tion or e‑mail requires a response more urgent­ly than once an hour, say, then that’s exact­ly how often you should check them — no more.”

This TED-Ed les­son comes adapt­ed from Bri­an Chris­t­ian and Tom Grif­fiths’ book Algo­rithms to Live By: The Com­put­er Sci­ence of Human Deci­sions. If you’d like to hear about more of the ways in which they apply com­put­ers’ meth­ods of deci­sion mak­ing to areas of human life — home-buy­ing, gam­bling, dat­ing — you can also watch their talk at Google. We also have plen­ty of sup­ple­men­tary time man­age­ment-relat­ed mate­r­i­al here in the Open Cul­ture archives, on every­thing from the neu­ro­science of pro­cras­ti­na­tion to the dai­ly rou­tines of philoso­phers, writ­ers and oth­er cre­ative peo­ple to tips for read­ing more books per year to the pres­i­den­tial­ly-approved “Eisen­how­er Matrix.” By all means, click on all these links; just don’t over­think the order in which to do it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Use the “Eisen­how­er Matrix” to Man­age Your Time & Increase Your Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty: The Sys­tem Designed by the 34th Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States

The Neu­ro­science & Psy­chol­o­gy of Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and How to Over­come It

The Dai­ly Rou­tines of Famous Cre­ative Peo­ple, Pre­sent­ed in an Inter­ac­tive Info­graph­ic

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

The Dai­ly Habits of Famous Writ­ers: Franz Kaf­ka, Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Stephen King & More

7 Tips for Read­ing More Books in a Year

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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